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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 9

On reframing our language

When I do workshops on alternative careers for information professionals, I always stress the importance of being able to reframe our skills in language that stakeholders in other industries can understand. We all know that no one really understands what librarians do, right? So when we talk about the idea of transferable skills, the first thing we need to recognize is that we're not able to transfer these skills effectively unless we can put them into the terminology of the field(s) we're targeting.

One of our transferable skills as librarians is our understanding of the power of language. Why else would we fight so bitterly about the terminology of our field, e.g. librarian vs information professional, or patron vs customer? (And let's not even get into the battles over the validity and desirability of the term "Library 2.0"!)

What we need to think about, though, is the way in which the language we use comes into play in everything that we do.

Language and the current crisis

As the economic crisis hits libraries hard, we don't always think about the power of the language we use to describe its impact. We use a lot of terminology like "crisis", "survival", "disaster", "endangered" and "uncertain future" – which, of course, is all true in many cases! However, when we repeatedly talk about our libraries in those terms, it contributes to the perception that we're done for, and that we're engaged in a last-gasp struggle for survival.

Not to underplay the gravity of the current crisis in any way, but I wonder if it would help change perceptions if we changed our focus? If we choose instead to focus on libraries as vibrant institutions that have earned the respect and robust funding of their communities, what does that instead say about our commitment to and belief in the bright future of libraries? If we choose instead to focus on what libraries are doing and have done to directly benefit their communities, what does that say about our role as an integral part of those communities?

More virtual ink has been expended on the future of libraries than probably any other professional issue. Reframing our language and our approach might help us come at these challenges from a different angle. (And, of course, some libraries and organizations do just this, and do a fantastic job of breaking down the return on taxpayers' or other stakeholders' investment in their libraries.)

Language and our own professional options

Our language and approach comes into play in terms of our own professional future, as well. I was over at the Information Today, Inc. (ITI) website the other day ( looking up the dates for its Internet Librarian conference this fall. I spied an interesting headline, "Why I must go to Monterey":

Need help justifying your trip to IL-09?
Sometimes all it takes to get permission is using the right words. Tell your boss why you must come to Monterey. Here's a draft memo ( to get you started ...

Now, that's an interesting use of the power of language, and an interesting pre-emptive move by ITI in a season of decreased conference attendance across the board. Note, though, that its approach is not: "The conference is in crisis because of low registration, and we need to ensure its survival". Its approach is: "This is what you can gain from attending, and this is how you can convey that information to the decision-makers at your institution". That's reframing at work!

Now, if your library is really in dire straits, a draft memo probably won't do it. But if your library is choosing where best to allocate its scarce professional development budget, sometimes a carefully laid-out memo can actually be just the ticket.

I think back to when I was a department head in a public library. One of my fellow department heads was constantly frustrated because she felt her ideas were rarely taken seriously, and her requests were always denied. She'd ask me "How do you get your proposals through?" and insinuate that some kind of favouritism was coming into play.

Why didn't she get most of her proposals through? Her approach generally boiled down to this: She'd grab the director in the hallway and breathlessly launch into a description of the latest programme or product that we just had to have. His response generally boiled down to this: "Sorry, it's not in the budget right now". Had he really digested her proposal? No! He just wanted to keep walking and to finish whatever it was he was doing when she interrupted him.

Why did I get most of my proposals through? Knowing that our director preferred things in writing, I'd draft a memo: This is what we need, this is why we need it, this is how much it will cost, these are the benefits, this is where it will save. After digesting the memo for a couple of days, our director would be much more receptive to a follow-up conversation about the product or programme; he'd have the information he needed, and he had it in the language and form he preferred and best understood.

Does this mean that my ideas were inherently better than hers? Of course not. It simply meant that I'd learned to talk to our director using his preferred language and approach. So, when we're having trouble getting our thoughts across or our ideas accepted, maybe it's time to take a step back and think about just how we're presenting them and how our stakeholders would best like to receive that information.

Let's reclaim our role as guardians of words, and recognize the power of language in all that we do.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (